22 February, 2024


The Police & Aragalaya Activists In A Time Of Social Upheaval 

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Actions by the government to deploy police to arrest and detain aragalaya leaders and activists during the last few months have drawn world-wide attention from human rights organisations and those concerned about freedom of expression and association as well as the violation of basic human rights of Sri Lankan citizens. Such actions cannot be justified especially when some of the activists are not produced before a judge within a reasonable period of time and they are detained under the provisions of the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTI). Many are asking the question as to why the PTA is used when there is no terrorism in the country? They are also asking whether the state action to detain activists in this way is itself a terrorist act? On both counts serious doubts exist in the popular mind.  Using the law or law enforcement agencies to harass and intimidate people for their political beliefs is a serious violation of human rights. It should not happen in a civilised society where the rights of people to protest peacefully is protected by law. Leaders should have the courage to listen to the public opinion and address any grievances expressed by the activists rather than try to arrest and detain them by force by using some regulations and provisions in police ordinance.  In this situation, the police cannot be blamed as they have to follow orders given by their superiors. However, if and when excesses occur, agencies set up to monitor such excesses should not be silent. Current confrontations between the police and protesters on city roads in Colombo are a sign of the failure of political leaders to devise a better way to deal with the protests. Leaving it in the hands of police can create unnecessary breakdown in police-citizen relations as well as creating harmful effects on the protesters. Policing methods in a modern society need review as well. 

In Sri Lanka, it seems that the people run to the courts to file fundamental rights cases and others when they face a problem with the police or another government agency. Is this because there are no other mechanisms to resolve disputes? In other developed countries there are various avenues such as the tribunals or ombudsmen for whom citizens can report any concerns about the way their personal issues have been dealt with by a government or commercial organisation. There are layers in this process also. Initially one tries to resolve the issue with the organisation directly. It could be an electricity or telecommunication company or a government department. It could also be related to a trading or consumer matter. Failing this, they can then go to a tribunal or ombudsman office. Going to courts is the last resort. It is an expensive one too. A similar system is required in Sri Lanka as well so that it could assist the process of conflict resolution on one hand and reduce the case load for the courts on the other. Litigation in the courts is not a pleasant activity in any case with delays, anxieties, financial costs and more.

Colonial Condition and its reproduction under Neoliberal State

During the British colonial period, there was a significant disconnect between the native speaking population, the middle class and those in the upper echelons.  Power, wealth, language, culture and status divided these communities. There were networks of relations within these social segments and some cutting across these boundaries through family, kinship, master-servant relations. A patronage system also came into being. There were brokering class with knowledge of English and local languages emerging from the commercial and governance sectors e.g. near kachcheris one could see these brokers. However, the cultural, linguistic and power divergences or cleavages remained significant making hundreds and thousands of native speakers marginalised from those with authority, power, wealth and status. Changes in the education system, professional fields, governance, commerce etc opened opportunities for some, especially those from well to do backgrounds. Opening of university of Ceylon, medical and law colleges was one such avenue. Upward mobility was assured for those with either a good education by the standards set by the British rulers or those who were able to become prosperous by engaging in commercial, plantation or professional activities such as doctors and lawyers.  There were different kind of opportunities for work for those educated in vernacular languages, especially via pirivenas. Local scholarship was defined by its own criteria, values and practices.  Such oriental scholars had a large following among the vernacular educated masses who were subjected to the colonial rule enforced by not lonely the Anglo superiors but also local chieftains who served the former.

After the Sri Lankan leaders assumed authority to govern after independence in 1948, the system in place continued with some changes for a couple of decades. Changes introduced to the governance, education, language of instruction and other fields became so critical that in time to come the functioning of various institutions and procedures put in place by the British rulers were either deformed or politicised creating various complications for the disempowered majority from all communities. While young people from not so well to do backgrounds were able to receive higher education through their mother languages, the cleavages between what they learned and what is required in the working world with better rewards were vastly different. Furthermore, a parallel system to offer jobs for those who were close to politicians or who provided a semblance of a client relationship – materially or symbolically – started to operate from the 1970s. Employment in government departments required a letter from the MP of a given electorate or district. They maintained lists of preferred candidates for given jobs in departments, ministries or other agencies. This system of selection excluded the many who did not have access to the MP and privileged a few with access.  Some Clerical jobs were offered to those with a degree. Thus, the system emerged was quite different to the one that existed during the British colonial period -though a similar pattern of exclusion operated in both. Inclusion criteria was different. Main factor was the access i.e. who had access and who didn’t? This situation led to frustrations among large segments of society and various youth uprisings from the south and the north.  We are already aware of the consequences including on the economy and social harmony. However, what is happening today in terms of aragalaya (struggle) and government’s mardanaya (suppression) can only be understood properly if we understand this context that illustrate the causes for such an uprising (aragalaya). From a long-term perspective, treating the symptoms rather than causes can be detrimental to the society. 

Social Regulation, Order, Oppressive Conditions and Revolution

Social regulation is a broader concept used by sociologist to refer to the regulation function in society involving various social institutions e.g. religion, family, education, economy, language, law, state, bureaucracy. All these institutions perform the task of regulating human behaviour because if regulation did not occur, society can become dysfunctional. According to functionalism, all social institutions need to be in a state of equilibrium or balance for a society to function better. A dysfunctional society is when one or more social institutions become dysfunctional.  Various social groups also have to be contended for long term prosperity. To maintain order in society, social regulation is essential. However, in a democratic society order needs to be maintained with consensus. Hence the social contract between the people who elect representatives and those get elected to the parliament and other significant authority positions. Power itself has certain regulatory aspects on behalf of the people. However, what has happened in Sri Lanka over the decades is that the centre of power has moved to a single person and the power of parliament has diluted to the extent that it is ineffective.  

Even though functionalism was prominent in sociological theory during certain stages of its development in the 19th century, conflict theory started to gain ground at later stages. Conflict theorists argued that as there are many people whose interests are not served by the existing ‘system’, social order cannot be maintained.  Instead of maintaining order, social change should be the ideal outcome for those who are suffering from oppressive social systems. Some American sociologists such as Ralph Darendorf promoted this idea. Later, Marxist and neo-Marxist theorists expanded the same by adding class conflict, class struggle etc.to the theory. The idea was that those sections of society dependent on selling labour for living – as against those using capital to employ labour e.g. the working class, peasants, women, must organise themselves to oppose and combat the oppressive systems wherever they are and liberate themselves from the shackles of oppression. They also discussed instruments of oppression used by those in power.  

Later, Marxist theory was expanded by various social theorists who had social liberation as their focus (not social regulation or control) by localising it to suit their own societal, political, economic and historical conditions. Examples are the ‘dependency theory’ that emerged from Latin America and elsewhere in the global south e.g. Samir Amin and the subaltern theory that emerged from a group of Indian scholars e.g. Ranjith Guha. By now other strands of social theory to explain historical and contemporary human conditions in various societies and propose anti-hegemonic strategies for achieving true decolonisation have emerged from a range of critical scholars including social scientists and humanities scholars. The argument is advanced by such decolonial scholars is that the former colonies of Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere have not achieved true decolonisation even though they have gained independence from the colonial masters who built imperial structures of dominance in metropolitan centres of various empires. According to neo-colonial theory, imperial control continues in a different form with the collaboration of local elites who are controlling the levers of power. Education itself has become an instrument of imperial control rather than an avenue for human liberation.  So is western culture, media, foreign aid and the academy. Epistemological basis of much research and teaching in the former colonies is also biased toward those from the global north.

Thus, if we are to understand what’s taking place in a small country like Sri Lanka today we need to be literate about the big picture in historical and contemporary terms in the first place.  This is because we are not living in an isolated island as such. Countries and peoples have been globalised. There is a global economy with important players and institutions controlling its shape and direction with the profit motive at its core, e.g. Multinational corporations (MNCs). These entities manage large sums of money from their shareholders that includes not only average mums and dads but also pension/superannuation funds that hold collective savings of retirees in billions.

Social change is thus seen by those who do not benefit from the existing system as the desired way to move forward and achieve human liberation. At one extreme of such conceptualisations, there is the notion of revolution. This, can range from social revolution brought about by non-violent means to armed revolution brought about by violent means. We have examples for both from the world history. Gandhian method is considered as representing the non-violent way and the Russian revolution and Chinese revolution are cited as representing the latter. Social and political forces and the nature of oppressive conditions prevailing in a society at a given time determine which one to be chosen by those who are affected. Revolutions cannot be brought about by a small group of people however motivated they are. They have to be embraced by a majority in society. Political parties or similar organisations are considered as the suitable vehicles that can engineer desirable change in society through revolutions of one kind or another.  Even in so-called democratic societies, revolutions can take place against those holding power, wealth and status.  Such revolutions or change do not take place with the consent of those who maintain power and oppressive conditions leading to human suffering. They will attempt to maintain the existing order with patchwork to the system when the masses rise against the system.  It is not unusual.

In a social revolution of any kind the ‘discourse’ has also become an essential element. Even before revolutions, there are various discourses or dialogues in societies. In these, one finds articulations of what is ideal for a society, critical views about what is happening, their causes and consequences. There are pro establishment and anti-establishment discourses. Some tend to reinforce the existing systems and others attempt to change them. When a majority in a country embrace one discourse over another, that can lead to further political action leading to social transformation.

The main point here is that social regulation or control cannot be enforced by the use of armed forces or the police alone in the long run.  Because human beings are thinking individuals, they operate in a system of values where there are concepts of right and wrong, social justice (procedural and substantial), human rights, fairness, discrimination, and more. Any action taken by the government, law enforcement agencies or armed forces will be critically examined by the people, more accurately their literate elements, by comparison with other societies or situations and what happened in history? Thinking people process information about events as well as actions by governments on the basis of a whole range of factors -not only what the rulers may say. If we take the current detentions of protest leaders such as Wasantha Mudalige by using the PTA, right thinking people will evaluate whether it is a just action or it is justified in the current socio-political and economic context?  After such evaluations, they will come to a conclusion as to the righteousness of this action.  Such conclusions can have an effect when elections are held.  Some state actions like this can have a lasting impact on voters’ minds as they become symbolic of wider pattern of actions.

Imbalance in Governance System: executive vs the legislature

This is a critical factor to examine. The power transferred by the people at periodic elections to elected representatives has to be used in the interest of the people and the country. According to the Westminster system, power is divided between the executive, legislature and the judiciary.  But we do not have a purely Westminster system since the role of executive President was introduced in the late 70s. A key question today is whether the executive actions both by the President and cabinet are sufficiently subjected to parliamentary oversight? It seems that a Gazette notification by the executive President has more power than what the 225 members of parliament can gather collectively? Ideally, actions of the executive should be subjected to parliamentary oversight and scrutiny.

Social Upheaval and Change/Transformation

When societies undergo social upheaval and unrest due to imbalances in the overall system or internal and external reasons, one cannot expect normalcy to prevail. Law enforcement agencies can attempt to bring back normalcy in the short term by enforcing emergency regulations or imposing restrictions on human activity by various means i.e. physical barriers and creating fear. However, if such actions by the authorities overstep the mark they themselves can contribute to social upheaval further. The very acts that are put in place by the authorities can become the cause for further liberatory action by the people who are not satisfied with the approach taken by the government. However, if such action is taken with good intentions and a sense of proportion, the populace will understand it and comply. If not breaking the law can become a common feature. This can lead to social disorganisation and dysfunctionality. For any system to remain in place, there has to be legitimacy in the eyes of the people. This is because a state does not operate in a vacuum. On one hand, it is a vehicle designed to maintain social order within the confines of existing laws, values and traditions. On the other it is a vehicle designed to provide for the needs of people in an organised manner. 

There are questions about whether a psychological transformation (or change in consciousness) is necessary before the material conditions in a society deteriorate to such an extent requiring transformation or significant change? In social theory you can find discourses on this subject.  Some suggest that even when the material conditions are right for a social transformation (or revolution), people are not ready or they do not have the right consciousness (vinnanaya) to initiate and engage in change. Therefore, it is up to the progressive parties to step in and conduct political education work to implant the necessary consciousness.  

Human thinking can be influenced by many factors including symbolisms, rhetoric, media representations, conceptual/theoretical formulations, discourses of various kinds, language, comparative cases and personal experiences of hardship. Liberatory thinking and action are also influenced by these factors. One strand of theory on this is to say that the theory or articulation of the existing problems in society emerge from the material conditions. They cannot be implanted artificially from elsewhere. Another talks about the power of discourses. Social philosophies and theories emerge from specific conditions of a given society -material and non-material. However, we cannot discard the possibility of human beings in one country learning from the experience of another country when it comes to not only matters of social transformation or change but also to other subjects e.g. development, human rights, gender equality, better system of governance, climate change.

Concluding Comments

Sri Lanka -though dependent on the Western articulations in its institutional operations and directions – has its own unique historical, material, cultural (including the value system), epistemological and symbolic dimensions. It is time that the more literate segments of society recall these strengths for social advancement and desired change in the existing system. The governance system including law enforcement have to serve the interests of the many rather than the few. The struggle (argalaya) that have emerged from the people as a non-violent movement has to move forward to bring about a better system. The ongoing discourses in the country will evolve in such a manner that appropriate organisational mechanisms will emerge in time to come e.g. people’s council. The competition between those forces that want to maintain the existing system and those who want a change will ultimately produce an outcome that may be acceptable to a majority. However, if the government tries to contain resistance to the existing system by using police and armed forces or the law for that matter without justification, it can add to further disharmony in society and even conflicts of various sorts. Ultimately, a few of those in power will not be able to contain social unrest even with the might of baton, water cannon and the gun. Instead of the social order in an equilibrium one will find a state of engineered chaos and dysfunctionality with such an approach. Genuine discussion and dialogue can be a productive way to bring about consensus.

In this 21st century, there is no reason for a country like Sri Lanka to curtail human freedoms for any group of people especially when such freedoms are necessary for more than ever due to the economic and social crisis facing it. If the government is eager to channel the energies of youthful activists and civic leaders who are awakened to the injustices in the system for social re-construction, then it needs to come up with creative and acceptable ways and means without limiting such avenues to a preferred party or two.  Governments needs to embrace all shades of opinion when making or remaking policies and programs. If it adopts ‘a barricade or fortress attitude’ as in a time of national emergency in normal times, it can become the laughing stock of the people rather than one designed to maintain law and order.

Future shape and direction of the governance mechanism suitable for Sri Lanka should be determined as a result of contest of ideas rather than a contest of physical force. Since independence what went wrong was the fact that the state determined the nature and direction of governance by virtue of the constitutional right bestowed on governing party or parties through periodic elections in a less consultative manner. At this particular juncture, there is a question of legitimacy for the government in the eyes of suffering masses as the material conditions have changed for the worse and higher taxes plus charges for electricity etc have started to bite into family budgets.  In this situation, using the police and security forces to curb popular protests not only sends the wrong signal to international partners and agencies dealing with human and political rights but compels many thousands of citizens to leave the country as well. According to one report, it was said that about one million left this year alone and among them were 2000 doctors. If those who are left in the country are seeking a system change their desires need to be accommodated through the democratic process rather than try to arrest and detain those expressing a politically opposing view.  

Human dignity should come before everything else. Every human being born into this world should be treated equally – not according to one’s class, caste, party affiliation, gender or anything else. Treatment in the legal system should also follow equality and fairness principles. It will be possible for the ruling elites to engineer a non-existing terrorism or fascism charge and keep arresting more protesters in the short term but events take their own turns depending on who is involved and the level of brutality experienced. The advice I can give the President who is a learned man is to take a step back from the current security/fortress mentality and loosen up the space for anyone to protest and express opposing views peacefully before the events take a turn for the worse. If he does so, he will be remembered as someone who made a difference for the whole society-not only for the ruling parties and families.  

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Siri: ECONOMIC RIGHTS and DEBT JUSTICE is what matters to average Lankans today. Human Rights are Indivisible and Sri Lankans are tired of being Divided and Ruled by Ethno-religious, gender, LGBTQ..XYZ identity politics that the foreign funded NGO Aragalaya actors and puppet show was all about!
    Let us put aside the Aragalaya hagiography and take a hard look at it. The Aragalaya enabled Bondscam Ranil to become President with Basil a US citizen staging the Default for IMF to enter Lanka while the Aragalaya circus was unfolding as a Distraction… Now it is clear that the Ranil Rajapkse regime was put in place with the pro-IMF CIA directed Aragalaya with NED and USAID funded civil society. Funded civil society NGOs and corporate media scribes have forgotten that Economic Rights and Debt Justice is what average Lankans, who are tired of being Divided and Ruled by Ethno-religious, gender, LRBGQZYZ identity politics funded by NED, care about!
    Except for Anthare or the IUSF the Aragalaya was a CIA operation as was the case with the Arab Spring fake revolutions and Imran Khan’s ousting in Pakistan.

    • 1

      This is probably a valid explanation. Americans are known for siding with military rulers in otehr parts of the world while talking about democracy and human rights. However if the above mentioned explanation is true, why the government put in place by the CIA -IMF etc keep arresting the very same aragalaya activists supported. by foreign NGOs?

      We think there is more to aragalaya than such simple explanations. In the post independent history of Sri Lanka, resistance movements emerged from the younger generation unhappy with the governance system controlled and manipuilated by the older generation. This time it is no different even though the aragalaya was a non-violent one by and large. So there has to be a systemic explanation to it. In other words, there is something wrong with the system. Over the decades, parliamentary democray(so-called representative) has been deformed in such a way that its power is compromised by the executive Presidential system as well as the way party politics have operated. Sarath Fonseks refers to the latter as a problem of political culture. We tend to believe that the centralisation of power in one individual and it is not being subjected to parliamentary oversight as the main cause of current problems.

      • 1

        The original Aragalaya was in fact a non-violent, popular, mostly middle class phenomenon, perhaps NGO funded (tents, free food, radio stations, chemical toilets, etc cost a lot of money). The participants were mostly concerned with the Rajapaksa’s economic mismanagement, and wanted both to go home. What happened on May 9th facilitated the entry of more violent forces, who are now revealed as the IUSF/JVP crowd. The original Aragalaya went home after Gota departed, and shortages ended, but those who took over continue in the political nihilism they have practised for decades.
        “why the government put in place by the CIA -IMF etc keep arresting the very same aragalaya activists supported. by foreign NGOs?”
        Because it is NOT the very same Aragalaya.

  • 2

    The time is right for the youth of the country to take back their future from the greedy parasitic vermin that have ruined any prospects for generations to come. The people must unite in this endeavour and back the youth all the way, surging over the utterly corrupt establishment and wiping the slate clean for a new beginning. There is no time to lose.

  • 1

    While the Aragala protests were due to Economic hardship caused by the Dollar Debt trap Colonialism, BUT the protestors were diverted and directed by foreign funded NGOs..
    Why did the Aragalaya have not Economic Agenda or call for DEBT CANCELLATION AND DEBT JUSTICE for Sri lanka? Why only focus on Civil and Political rights rather than Economic and Social RIghts and Justice?! Because this is the Western version of HR that dominates at the UNHRC Human Rights hypocrisy show in Geneva.
    The protests in Colombo should have also targeteed the Washington Consensus (IMF and World Bank) Offices and US embassy, after all the Finance Minister Basil Jarapass who staged the Default was a US Citizen! And it is the Weaponized US dollar and UE-EU based Sovereign Bond Traders (ISB)s that has crashed and Depreciated the Lankan Rupee and beggared Lanka although Sri Lanka is the richest country in South Asia!
    Aragalaya distracted everyone from the Western hybrid Cyber operation to re-colonize Lanka with the IMF and Paris Club Debt trap narrative, while a numbers game was played with Debt data, like the Covid-19 numbers game they used to spread fear, lockdown and destroy Economy and Society and have a militarized injection campaign using fake Case Fatality Rate (CFR) data!

  • 1

    Dr. Siri Gamage: It is time for the “Aragalaya” to take a different shape and strategy. To most people and Political Leaders “Aragalaya” is the same archaic style of marching in the streets and disrupting the daily activities of the country. This must stop in today’s context.

    (1) I suggest a new shape and a strategy. The people must BOYCOTT all Government ceremonies attended by MPs especially the Political Party members who are handling the functions of Governing. Next, in addition, the People must stage protests at those sites where such ceremonies are to be held and resort to “HOOT” at the “Dignitaries” (Ministers & MPs and some of the “High Ranking Beaurocrats) who are known to have “MESSED” up the county’s economy and brought misery to the country.

    (2) Now that the Government has declared some localities and building sites “High-Security Zones”, the PEOPLE must declare all the remaining areas ( the Electorates) as “High-Security Zones of the PEOPLE” and prevent their “Representatives” from entering such areas.

    The above course of action by the PEOPLE will prevent the inconvenience of traveling down to Colombo to stage protest rallies and save money and time. Recently the PEOPLE in Hambantota electorate DID it and prevented Namal Rajapakse from attending a meeting. It is WORKABLE.

  • 0

    How about turning aragalaya to focus on doing positive things that can benefit those suffering? Giving a helping hand to the people who need it? This way the activists can turn an adevrsity to a benefit. Voluntarism should be the basis. Tnrough such work ,aragalaya can be a force for good. So long as it focuses on the corrupt government, and its downfall tnhrough protest action, government will use mardanaya to suppress. It can’t suppress a program that benefits people. e.g. organise to assist those with health problems, those with problems in agriculture or fishing, help those in need of food,sheltor etc. help children to learn with no fees, help university students to get job skills and learn English, help develop self esteem and true SL identity, network with people on the ground .by speading a positive philosophy. Do not expect everything from the government. Broader community can organise its own solutions.

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